Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Hope of Watching

What are you waiting for?

It's a time of expectation. A time of wondering and watching.
We often talk about Jesus and his birth. That is what we are here to celebrate and remember at this time of the year. It would be helpful to note that Jesus' birth has already happened, though. Advent is a time of looking forward. If we are expecting something to come or to happen, and Jesus' birth has already happened, then what are we waiting and watching for?

This year for Advent I'm paying attention to the lectionary scriptures.
On this first Sunday of the Advent season the scripture comes to us from the Gospel of Mark.
And, it's not a happy-shiny piece.

Mark 13:24-37

New International Version (NIV)
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

The Day and Hour Unknown

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

 Pain. Sorrow. Heartache.
Are these the things we have to look forward too?

The famous notion is that "things are going to get worse before they get better".
As I read through the passage for today the first thing that comes to mind is Ferguson and situations similar to it. When travesty comes to the forefront of your life and unexplainable events rock your world the natural response can be to react in inexplicable ways. Things certainly got worse before they got better in Ferguson. (Not that anything has gotten "better" yet.) I cannot imagine living in the midst of an environment where people think it's ok to just do whatever you want and act however you want to act just because somebody else didn't get the outcome they wanted in life. That's important to note. All the people doing the looting and rioting...the court decision had nothing to actually do with any one of them. Sometimes people will use any opportunity to simply be ridiculous. The man who is going away in our scripture seems to have some idea as to the unpredictability of human beings in this world. Anything can happen. He puts his servants in charge before he goes and tell them to keep watch. But, what are they watching for?

The events in Ferguson makes me think of another timely word. Apocalypse.
We are familiar with the word because of the grand scale that any Hollywood movie uses on/with the subject. In religious circles, we use the word to speak of the final destruction of the earth, especially those events laid out for us to read in a book like Revelation. The word is also used in a more general sense to speak of an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale. During this time of the year we tend to think of a sweet little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. But, there were moments of catastrophic proportion in those fleeting moments of the Savior's birth. King Herod had issues with the birth of "The King" happening in nearby Bethlehem. Somewhere in those first couple of years, but after the moment when Jesus and his family go to Egypt, soldiers are sent to Bethlehem to kill every first born child under the age of two years. A hateful sign from the current king that the throne would not be shared or given away to any one else.

People in the early Gospel story and all the way back into the Old Testament account were living in a sense of "advent". They were looking forward to a time when a "savior" would come and rescue them, set them free, from the rule of the Roman government lording over their heads. But, that waiting was not without it's trials and test to their faith. This period of time between the Old and New testament accounts is known as time of the Maccabees. This Jewish family would stand up for themselves and their country in the face of that Roman power seeking to over rule the Hebrew people. War ensued. The time of holiday known as Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jewish people still to this day. A candle staff with eight holders is used to remember the days of fighting the Maccabees did with the Romans. Oil was used to keep those candles lit. And, the oil did not run out. Finally, the Romans give up, thinking the Maccabees and the Jews are a pest not worth their time or their resources to overthrow at the current moment. The persistence and perseverance of a few seems to reflect the servants Jesus refers to in the Mark passage. Watching. Waiting. Protecting. Keeping the days against the evil that seeks to tear the house down.

I saw news footage on Friday of a man in Ferguson who took a stand against the rioters. Some people out on the interstate decided they would set up a roadblock because they did not like the decision that the courts gave on the matter of the police officer's shooting & killing a young black man. The man in question got out of his car and decided to confront those making a line across the road, not letting anybody drive through. This man had a job to get to and a family to support. Instead of just allowing people to make decisions for others and causing the people around them to suffer, this one man decided enough was enough. He got into faces and forced people to move. The police force showed up soon after and cleaned up the scene and got traffic flowing again. But, I was moved by this one man who felt the need to stand up against the flow. The courage to stand up against the atrocities of our world comes from a place not natural to ourselves. Atrocity sometimes begets atrocity. It multiplies and adds to the level of wickedness in the original or previous situation. The only way to combat it is to be ever watchful and assert the necessary influence to said situation so as to defuse the power of obscenity and violation, stopping it in it's tracks. 

Advent is a time of watching. The people who were looking for a savior were watching.
They kept their eyes open and saw the signs. They were aware that something great was happening in their midst. Jesus tells his followers that one day he will return. He also tells them to watch the signs. The signs will be impossible to miss. War. Famine. Rumors of war. Neighbor taking up sword against neighbor. Senseless acts of violence that leaves one wondering where the good in the world really is. Natural disasters they leave us in awe and sadness at the unfeeling power of nature itself. Advent and apocalypse are unlikely kin that need each other in order to make sense. Take it literally or figuratively and the viewpoint is still the same. Have you seen the sun go out and the moon not shining? Have you witnessed the stars falling or the heavenly bodies being shaken? People in Ferguson have, watching stores being looted and their town tore up by rioting. People in New Orleans have when a hurricane blew their city down and buried it in water. People in New York have, when two planes flew into a pair of towers, bringing rubble and cement raining down upon unlikely bystanders.Travesty comes when we least expect it. 

Watching does not afford us the luxury of avoiding the trouble that lie ahead. 
What watching does do is prepare us for what is coming toward us.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a device or a person who could tell you what was coming and get you ready for any hurt or cut or scrape? Well, it doesn't quite work like that. Again, we aren't going to magically avoid any of this and we don't have some protection policy in place to cure us from all the hurts of the world. This is all to say, we are going through the hurts and pains and the agony. Through it. Not around it. Or under or over it. We are going to walk right through it. I've had this conversation with my boy since he was old enough to walk.He doesn't look where he's going. He walks right into things that are on the floor. Dog toys. Shoes. A clothes basket. The child has narrowly missed hitting his head several times on the edge of a table or scraping himself on another object lying on the floor. Aren't we all guilty of not watching? We are mesmerized by what's on the TV screen. We think what's going on behind us is more important than looking where we are going. "Whoever put his hand to plow and looks back..." I wonder if those doing the protesting in Ferguson are looking where they are going. Do they realize they are about trip over even harder times and cause their town to slip into an economic and socialistic downfall. Fox News reporter Charlie LeDuff was live at the release of the news that the grand jury had acquitted the police officer in Ferguson. Many people saw what was coming. Rioting might happen. LeDuff was not concerned so much with 'getting the story' as much as he wanted to caution those waiting outside on the courthouse lawn. "I was present in Detroit when the riots happened there. I lived through it. We never recovered. We were never the same." 

The truth about watching where we are going is this - we have a chance to respond and react as we walk over and through the travesties. If we're not watching where we are going, then we walk right into it and get hurt or lost in what's going on. The servants in the house have been entrusted with the care of the homestead until the master returns. What are we doing with what we have here? Churches go through their own "Ferguson" at times. We riot because we don't like decisions that are being made. We get concerned with getting what we want out of the situation. We don't care about other people's feelings and what others have worked so hard to achieve, long before we were ever on the scene. All we seem to care about is the here and now. Give me what I want the way I want it. We walk head long into the travesty and become part of the problem, not the solution. If we had truly been watching, we would have entered the fray cautiously, tentatively. Instead we enter with a fist full of hate and a mind full of revenge. We do not enter as servants looking to care for the creation. We enter as thieves looking to get what we can for ourselves. 

What we are looking for is a way to solve the hurts of the world around us.
What we are looking for is a savior who will return, and in doing so, will lead us to greener pastures and brighter tomorrows. In watching, we increase our faith. And, we believe the day will come.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving Benefits

Thornville Community
Thanksgiving Service

We're going to raise some funds!

Ours scripture this evening uses some interesting wording that I think we should consider...

2 Corinthians 4:15-16

New International Version (NIV)
15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

We all want them. 
We want to go to a job where we know that our needs will be met and our wants covered.  
We want to make enough money to give us the car we want and while having enough to put food on the table and still, just maybe, be able to take that vacation we so desperately need. We want health care. We want a co-pay we can handle and coverage so that if anything happens to go wrong with our bodies we can make sure the doctor gets paid and our ills and woes are taken care of so we can get back on our feet. 

We all want them. But, do we realize what we are really asking for?
Maybe a closer look at the word would do us some "benefit".

Full Definition of BENEFIT

1 archaic :  an act of kindness :  benefaction
2 a :  something that promotes well-being :  advantage
   b :  useful aid :  help
3 a :  financial help in time of sickness, old age, or unemployment
   b :  a payment or service provided for under an annuity, pension plan, or insurance policy
   c :  a service (as health insurance) or right (as to take vacation time) provided by an employer in addition to wages or salary
4:  an entertainment or social event to raise funds for a person or cause 
Hey, right off the top comes a line that could create a whole sermon to itself. A benefit can be "an act of kindness". That's right up God's alley. Paul writes in our scripture tonight that grace is reaching out. Through God's grace, people are being drawn closer to God. This is a moment that brings thanksgiving. God is to be praised. God comes first in our lives.

But, this time of year is not one that comes without trials and hurt and pain. 
Paul would state that we are not to lose heart. But it is so easy to do so. Recently, I have done several funerals for people in this area. This time of year is one where we have been raised to practice the belief that our family should come together and be together during these special moments of Thanksgiving. There are meals to be eaten. Football games to be watched. Shopping to be done. Presents to be opened. Our family is supposed to be with us in these times. But, how do we cope when we no longer have that special someone there to be with us anymore? 

This time of year can be a painful moment and Paul seems to reflect that integral thought. "though outwardly we are wasting away..." Life here is temporary. It doesn't last forever. Some of our blessings don't last forever either. A benefit is also thought of as time of financial help for those in a time of sickness, or old age, or unemployment. Yes, people get sick. One moment we are in our prime, The next we are struggling with the dreaded indecency called cancer. One moment we are working our job, providing for our family. The next, we find ourselves with a pink slip and long line at the unemployment office. If you've been there, you know the heartache and the heart break. How will you make it? How will you provide for those you love? Where will the next meal come from?

The American dream tells us we need a big house, with a wife, two kids, two cars, two dogs, a piece of land, maybe in the country, a few acres of land. So many of the things we get in this world cause us so much grief later on. Kids who don't listen. A mortgage that seems to have no end. Vehicles that break down and need to be fixed. A house that seem to always need something redone or remodeled. The things we consider benefits can seem to be burdens. This life is not without it's trials and temptations. We want more. We need more. We find things we think we can't go without. 

Until we realize...
Benefits are really temporary. Thanksgiving is what lasts forever.
Maybe we've had it all wrong. If we want things that don't break down, things that have lasting significance, moment that have no end, maybe we've been looking in the wrong place. The moment we accept that this world is temporary and that things here don't last forever is the moment when we turn to find a place where things do last forever. We look inward and we realize that there is something eternal. A soul. A spirit. Beyond the fragile frame of existence on this human plane we find that there is something worth seeking. God, in his grace, has been drawing us toward it all along. 

A benefit is also thought of as a service or a right provided by an employer in addition to employment. We so easily think we are entitled to certain things. We deserve certain blessings. Jesus would say, "Store up your blessings in heaven", "Forget about yourself, think of others first", "Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me" Paul would reflect those sentiments in his words. "Therefore, don't lose heart" Yes, this world is temporary. Outwardly, we are wasting away. People will get sick. People might lose their jobs. People might not have enough to eat. But, this world is not where we are staying. This world is not our home. Yet, while we are here, while we exist on this plane of life, we can have peace, and be peace for and to others. Though we are wasting away outwardly, inwardly we are being renewed. By showing kindness to someone, we renew ourselves inwardly. By putting a plate of food in front of someone, we make it possible to believe and have hope. This is how the world will know that we are Jesus' disciples, if we love one another. Loving one another transforms us. It gives us hope to carry on.

On Facebook just today, I see a friend who posts about her dad, who passed away a year ago. "Happy first birthday in heaven, dad" When our focus goes outward instead of inward, dwelling on any earthly pain or hurt, we find peace. We become peace for others to find. We live in the benefit of thanksgiving. We find the ultimate place for our souls to dwell. A place called grace.

I told you at the outset that we were going to raise some funds. It wasn't fundraiser you thought it was going to be. I have no check to lay in your hand. The benefits I speak of cannot be cashed in for that trip to DisneyWorld. There's only one place these benefits make sense. 

This pension plan ends at the throne of the One with ultimate policy.

The Thanksgiving of the Tithe

Just try and out-give God. 

One of the best examples of giving that was dropped into my life was a man named Jay Hawes,

I really wish you could have met him. I remember him as a happy, go-lucky guy.
Heart of gold. Passion-filled. Heart on fire for God. Preaching was not his gift. Some of those early sermons were rough. (Maybe all of us preachers go through that.) One major area he was gifted in was finance. When he came to the Shelby Church of the Nazarene in 1992 one of the first things he did was help organize the budget. As with any church, there can be financial issues about where money should go and how things get paid. He straightened all of that out and got a good plan in motion that allowed the church to start thinking about the future. He had a good head on his shoulders. Jay had spent several years working for UPS. I heard many a story about being "brown blood". (You've probably noted those brown uniforms they wear.) The job was not easy. Jay always seemed to take the hard tasks in life and interject them with his brand of fun and laughter. I'm a better person today for having known him.

Jay and his family came to the Shelby area from up around Cleveland. He grew up and spent his early years between Ashtabula and Cleveland. It was during those UPS years that he got this idea about trying to "out-give God". I don't recall exactly how it happened. Jay was a guy who set his mind on a thing and got that thing done. At one point, he had it mapped out where he was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 40. He knew what to do and how much to put away every week so that by the time his 40th birthday got here, the work would be done. But, then God called him into ministry and he had to leave the UPS job behind. During those years while attending Cleveland First church, he got this idea about trying to give back something every time he noticed that God had blessed him with something. At first the notion started with a purely monetary push. He saw some money coming to him and recognized that God was blessing him. So, he would try to turn it around and give back. This started an endeavor that would almost break the happy, go-lucky guy.

On this Sunday, we have all gathered to note that we are thankful. What are we thankful for?
Lets take a look at our scripture for the days and see if there any lead ins for us to think about.

Malachi 3:10

New International Version (NIV)
10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

Now, remember our context. In many cases there wasn't money. We think we know what poverty is? Go without anything but the food you are able to grow with your own blood, sweat and tears and you'll get the idea. There are some right here in Perry County, OH who are still living without running water or a  working bathroom. The Israelites have been in such a place in their time. You either lived in the luxury of the king with the upper crust of society or you lived in poverty. There wasn't a middle class to speak of in those days. And, still, they were required to tithe of what they had. The "whole tithe" in actuality was food. Grain and vegetables and perishable items were here in large quantities. God commands that it all be brought into the storehouse. The idea is that if the people will do as they are told, then God will do as God has said. Blessings will abound. 

If we widen our scope and see more of what the prophet is presenting to the people we will see that the message of thankfulness goes further than we could imagine. The message comes in the form of a challenge.

Breaking Covenant by Withholding Tithes

“I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

We saw last week how the system of tithing was instituted by Moses during the second year of the Exodus. It has long been a tradition to give a tenth of what a person had back to the Lord. But, not all kept that covenant it seems. Instead of giving what they had, they withheld it and kept it for themselves. The Lord calls them out on it, too. Just like Jesus called the Pharisees and teachers of the law out in the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke.  Remember what Jesus said to them? They should tithe and they should also take care of those in need. The language here in Malachi sounds as if the tithe being brought into the storehouse is certainly not something to just sit on. God wants food in the house. People need to eat. If anyone was in need they could come to the king, to the those in leadership, and find what they needed. I find similarity from the language of this passage and the inspiration found in it at other points in scripture.

Matthew 25 - Here we see Jesus using a parable about sheep and goats. Jesus calls some of the people sheep that call upon others and meet their needs. Other he describes as goats who don't meet anybody's needs. "When did we see you blind, or poor, or in prison?" The people of Israel that Malachi is speaking to are said to ask
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ See the blank stare? The blind glare, as if they don't know. They don't seem to think that they are doing anything wrong. The point is...we can't just do whatever we want to do, however we want to do it, and just expect God to put up with it. In fact, God will not just put up with it. God will point it out to us in uncomfortable ways. In this case, it's not just a poke and a prod, but with a challenge. C'mon, you all put everything you have into this and I'll bless you beyond your wildest dreams. The challenge is to simple do what is asked - tithe. Give back to God what is due to God. Not just the monetary note, but the thankfulness. There is a glad note of all that has been given to us in put God first. God bless us with all we have. And, the blessings don't stop there. Nor does God intend to stop blessing us. But, God must be first. Anything less than that is highway robbery. 

The other piece of scripture that came to mind was from Acts Chap 2 where the believers all put their belonging into a "community chest" and simply gave to others whatever they needed. The language in Malachi suggests that the blessing God wants to give the people will be so large that there won't be room enough to store it. And, why would you want to? Why would you store all this food and grain and animals? So we can sit here and look at it? If the blessings is so large that it can't be stored then you have to use it. Is there anybody in need? Let them take what they need. The scripture in Malachi suggests that the nations around them would look in on their situation and think of them as truly blessed, a "delightful land". When was the last time you thought of your church as a "delightful" place to be? Is there an attitude of giving that suggests that this a place where people can find love and an environment that will meet their needs?

There is thanksgiving in the tithe. The Apostle Paul would call for a cheerful giver. I knew such a man. Jay Hawes gave what he had and did it with a smile on his face. I recall him sharing his recollections about trying to out-give God. The scripture from Malachi was his inspiration. During his time attending at Cleveland First Church of the Nazarene, he got this idea that he could, in essence, out-give God. Every time he sensed he was being blessed in some way, he would turn it around and give back in some way. The whole idea significantly predated the "Pay It Forward" movement. There was a time when he noticed someone at church had slipped him some money to help pay for his schooling. He would turn that around and try to give the same amount of money back into the offering plate. But, it went further. Some one gave some food to his family in charity. He, in turn, either bought a gift card to a grocery store or bought some food himself and tried to give it to someone in need. The entire process was exhausting, Jay said. After weeks and months of trying to keep up, he realized he could not. The blessings were coming in at such a rapid rate that he couldn't stay on top of each and every one of them.

Or, maybe, the blessings had been there and now he was simply aware of what was going on. How many blessings slip by us without us actually realizing or considering where it came from? At this point, Jay was in full realization mode. And, the reality was staggering. Things he had prayed for were coming to be. A sick child in the family got well. How do you repay that? How does one turn that around and give back? Jay got creative. A visit to the hospital and the children's ward. A promotion on the job brought more income. His tithe at church went up a bit. Someone blessed him with tickets to a Cleveland Indians game. He couldn't make the game on that day, so he saw to it that a family who had never been to a game got the tickets instead. In the end, Jay would say that it nearly broke him. The sheer magnitude of trying to give back would be more than he could keep up with or have the income possible to spread around to every moment where he realized a blessing had come. 

But, it didn't stop him from trying. I think Jay Hawes really understood what the word thanksgiving actually meant. And, God continues to send his blessing long after Jay has left us. His life was snuffed out long before it was time. A tragic car accident would take his life a month after the attacks on the towers of 9/11. A couple years later, his wife Judy would succumb to cancer. Another life taken too soon. For three years while Jay was our pastor at the Shelby Church of the Nazarene, we became intimately acquainted with his kids, Jared, Jacob and Jaimee. Two ornery boys that were cut out of the same mold as their dad and a sweet redheaded girl who followed in her mama's steps. When the Hawes family left Shelby, they moved back up towards Cleveland. I recall Jared struggling with his faith a bit. Jacob never seemed to waver about his beliefs, but struggled with what he was called to do. Jaimee grew up before we knew it and found a young man named Sam who would become her husband. 

Jared would changed his name a bit a and go by "Jay" - a tribute to his father. Man, he even looks like his dad. Kinda freaky. Jared graduated seminary and is pastor at Faith Venture Church, a Nazarene congregation out in Colorado, of all places. Jacob has been working in ministry for several years. He is currently pastor at Hope Community, a campus ministry church of the Nazarenes connected to Toledo University. Jaimee and her husband Sam found their way to Virginia where Sam is lead worship pastor. I amazed at how well they all are doing. It is a harsh reality to lose your parents at such an early age. But, God has blessed all three of these kids mightily. I can't help but see it go all the way back to a moment when their dad, a "brown blood" UPS guy, realized that giving back to God was more important than focusing on himself. That blessings has continued to go on. The storehouse is way past being stocked. The blessings have over flowed to the point of three great kids and their own kids.

The attitude of giving finds it's home with thanksgiving and praise.
God comes first. The blessings will be impossible to miss.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Attitude of Giving

It's not why you do it. It's how you do it. 

Last week we opened the door on the subject of tithing and offerings.

As we did so we learned that there is little said or referred to about the subject prior to the Law of Moses. There are a few instances mentioned in Genesis, but nothing expository. Why Abraham felt the need to give a tenth. The reason it was important. There are some practices that we see in Genesis, such as building an altar and worship God, that aren't given much reason or meaning until we see Moses giving Law to the Israelites in Exodus and beyond. Tithing and offerings are another one of those subjects. We see people doing it, but we don't have much to go on.

As we get started this week, we will go to a not so familiar spot.
We'll get to the Law and what it has to say. Jesus spoke about tithing and offerings also. But, it was Paul speaking to Timothy near the end of the first letter the Apostle wrote to his student-son in the faith that will set the tone for us. Paul's letter was to Timothy, and is to us, a refresher course in all that one should believe and practice. It was to Timothy as a preacher and to us as Christians following the Savior. Lets see where it ties in with our giving.

1 Timothy 6:17-19

New International Version (NIV)
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

What we want to see this week is not the legal aspect of why we give, but the attitude behind what we give. Are putting something in the offering plate because we think we are required to do so? OR, are we doing it because we want to give back; because we realized that God is most important? I think we should find where in the law our subject is first mention and then move forward from there.

It was during the second year of the Exodus that we see Moses instituting the system of tithing. When the Tabernacle was constructed, this mobile temple system that was put together while the Israelites were in the desert, it was here that Moses shows them the need to give a tenth of what they had. And, what they had was not much. Mostly, what they had was some grain. many of them had animals and livestock. They are in the desert. Money was scarce. An agricultural system was next to impossible in this environment. What did they have? Moses shows them the need to give out what they did have.

Leviticus 27:30-33

New International Version (NIV)
30 “‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. 31 Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. 32 Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. 33 No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’”

Why is it that Moses seems to think they need to learn this idea of tithing? What is so important about this mode of worship that the Israelites need grasp? Well, now that this Tabernacle is put together and they have a place to worship God the people need to now how to worship God. The answer to our quandary today is not in the why, but in the how. Worship is something that is to be done. It is not something that we just show up for. It is something that we do. Maybe you came out here today. I thank you for coming to this building this morning. Can't really do any of this without some people here. Otherwise, it looks rather funny to see some guy wandering around a room talking to no one. Thank you for being here. Now that you're here, what are you going to do? Just sit there? That might be stranger than me talking to an empty room. Now I'm talking to a room full of people and nobody is responding. They are just sitting there looking forward. None of this makes any sense unless we are doing something.

Ah, but some people get it. At least that much. We are here to do something. SO, they do it. They stand when they are supposed to stand. They sing when they are supposed to sing. They drop an envelope in a plate as it passes them. They repeat a prayer they have heard for years and have memorized the words to. It is the how we are to worship that eludes many of us. Lets look back at the story of Cain and Abel for a moment. Like many of stories we see back here in early Genesis, there are details left out. Sometimes I think I'm watching a 90's sitcom or dramedy. We've all seen those shows where people in the script seem to intentionally leave out pieces of conversation that if they would have just said this or communicated that then they wouldn't have the problem they have. That's what Cain and Abel feels like. It is shared that both Cain and Abel are about to give offerings to God. But, for some reason unknown to us, God doesn't smile down on Cain's offering. God seems to be happy with Abel's offering. What is it about Abel's offering that God seems to like? We are left out in the cold here. That 90's sitcom leaves out the piece of dialogue we are wanting to hear. It will take a little more digging to figure out what we want to know. 

29 times the word "tithe" is mentioned in the Old Testament (in the NIV).
Tithing and offerings were an important part of the religious system for the Hebrews in the Old Testament. They were required to give of what they had in order to return a blessing to God. In many cases they did not have money, so they gave of their livestock. They gave of what grain they had. The point was to help israel to see that God comes first in all they do. Now, we could get very legalistic here and state that because many fo them did not give money, then we don't have to give money either. Context, context, context. We need to understand the importance of tithing what we have. In our world today, we do have money. Money is a near essential to living in today's world. We are rooted in the New Testament world of thought and life. In thinking more about this tithing issue, what would Jesus have said to his listeners about the subject?

Matthew 23:23

New International Version (NIV)
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Luke 11:42

New International Version (NIV)
42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

In the matter of tithing and offerings, the subject is often raised, who are we giving this stuff to? Well, the matter is brought to a head here in the Gospels as Jesus confronts the religious leaders on the matters of giving. The Old Testament offers little in the way of law explaining the importance of giving connected with the outpouring of charity. However, there are verses like this from Deuteronomy chaps 14 & 15 that go into detail about tithes.

Deuteronomy 14:28-29

New International Version (NIV)
28 At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

AH! Sounds like a community dinner to me! last night we put on one of our finest Thanksgiving dinners.  It takes people giving and sacrificing much to pull off what we did last night. I am blessed to know the folks in this church and how they give and give to make things work like these dinners. Listen to further commandment from Deut 15.

Deuteronomy 15:7-8

New International Version (NIV)
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

There is a connection here between giving what we have in tithing and offerings and the directive to be charitable and help the poor. This is what God is all about. Meeting people's needs. God comes first. Our notion, our desire, is to give to God out of what he has given us. With that idea and commandment in mind, we use what we have given to God to, in turn, bless people around us. We make this clear sign that the things we have are not our own. We didn't have possession of them in the first place. Some day we will leave this earth and not own anymore, anyway. So, while we are here, we give to God and give to others. Jesus was clear with the religious leaders he dealt with that they should, in fact, tithe. Yes. That was there spiritual responsibility. Also, they were not to neglect from the fact that they should take care of those in need around them. The two go hand in hand. 

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

New International Version (NIV)

Generosity Encouraged

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
    their righteousness endures forever.”[a]
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Now, some folks don't like putting this Corinthians passage into the tithing discussion. The issue of tithing is very legal minded one with all the ramification of punishment and consequences.  I cannot help but see all of this as spiritual practice. That's what we are hear from, aren't we? This whole thing is spiritual and not legal. We have been set free from the law. Jesus came to free us from the burden of carrying the law everywhere we go. Instead he has written the law on our hearts. We know what we are to do and we can do it joyfully. "My joy I give unto you" Giving and tithing are not subjects that should cause us grief and harm. They are an opportunity to worship God and put God first in all we do. Can you give a tenth of what you have with a cheerful heart? I'll tell you's a whole lot easier to do that in a setting where you know ministry is being done and peoples needs are being met. Youy know where you offering is going. I am blessed to have a financial team in our church that keeps people up to date on what's coming in and going out and where it's all going. Some treasurers and financial sects I have worked with in the past are so tight lipped and keep the checkbook so 'close to home' that nobody gets to see what's going on. That's a recipe for disaster there.

We give to God freely. We give to bless God and to be a blessing to others.
There's still more to discuss next week. And, there another chance to give freely from what God has given to you.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Melchezidek's Money

Who's money is it?

It's Veteran's Sunday and we find ourselves in a scripture containing a very soldier-like scene.
Yet, the man involved is not someone you would normally think of as a solider. Abraham has worn a lot of different hats since leaving his home land in Ur. Herdsman. Prayer warrior. Priest.
Today's scripture shows us that this 'soldier' feels that giving is pretty important. So, this scripture also involves the subject of money. And, that's important, because we are going to spend a few Sundays talking about money, finance, tithing, and offerings.

What is the truth about tithing and offerings and why is it so important to our Christian faith that we do so? These are some questions we will try to answer in the next three weeks. It seems that giving to God out of what we have is a practice that goes back to mankind's very origins. Our earliest stories show people being created from the dust of the earth. People being created from a rib in the side of a man. Then we see human being giving offerings of their hard word and labor back to God. Cain and Abel's story is actually our earliest mention of giving an offering back to God. It is important to note that an idea or mention of giving or tithing predates the law. The reasons are not made clear, but for some reason, the idea that we should give to God out what we have is pretty important to the life of a believer.

The scripture we are settling on comes from Genesis 14. Abraham has just rescued Lot from a band of marauders around the city of Sodom. There has been some fighting amongst the kings in this region and some raiding of the cities, namely all the food and possessions in the city of Sodom. Abraham's nephew, Lot, is carried away with many of these raids and Abraham has to rescue him. In doing so, Abraham and his men have accumulated much wealth and possessions. Lets look at the scene as the chapter reaches it's end.

Genesis 14:17-24

New International Version (NIV)
17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth.
20 And praise be to God Most High,
    who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”
22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

It's not clear why Abraham feels the need to give a tenth of everything to Melchizedek. It's the first time we see anybody doing such a thing. There are actually only two references to such an offering in the Old Testament before the Law of Moses. The next one is when Issac is in the story around Genesis 26. All the promises have been passed from Abraham to Isaac. God will now make Isaac to receiver of the great blessing. God will make his offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky. In this chapter, we see Isaac come to great prominence and in a place where he can give something back to God. It leaves one wondering if a person needs to be in possession of many riches before they feel the need to give back to God out of what they have.

Maybe a little further research on Melchizedek is in order. The scripture here says that he is a king and he is also a priest of the "Most High God".However, any reasearch we do on that avenue will prove as fruitless as his name is mysterious. There's not much to go on when researching "Melchizedek". Looking at his name closer keys us in on some meaning. In Hebrew, his name is broken down into two parts. malki zedek  However, in the Old Testament, it is read as one word. The church historian, Josephus, would interpret the two parts as meaning malki - the king and zedek - righteousness or justice. 

There is something about his presence here that causes Abraham, in soldier mode, to stop and give a tenth of all he has. This is a priest of the Most High. I'd like to think that Abraham is viewing all that he has as being given to himself. So, he should give back out of what he has since it was never his to begin with. All that he has accumulated has been through the spoils of war. Through the Old testament account, we see people carrying off possessions they have come to own through war. Some things they want. Some things they don't. Some things they should have. Some things they end up paying a price for taking.

We are looking at why we give back to God. maybe there's something in what exactly the offering is in the first place. This account in Genesis 14 serves as a backdrop to some story that will come. Lot & Sodom. There is a moment where Abraham and Lot will have a discussion about how large the encampments have grown. They can't stay in the same place because they are walking all over each other. They will have to choose between different areas. It says here that Lot was carried off in the midst of the raiding and waring between the kings. It seems that he has seen a bit of what is in the cities, namely Sodom. He has seen the lushness and the wealth. Later, when the two of them decide to go their ways and choose their paths, Lot chooses to go towards Sodom. 

Abraham, on the other hand, doesn't seem to want anything to do with Sodom. Our account in Genesis 14 says that after Abraham return with all the possessions that the waring kings took away, then the king of Sodom comes out to meet them. He wants his people back but tells Abraham that he can "keep the goods". Abraham doesn't want them. If the future story about what is going in Sodom and Gomorrah tells us anything about the character and righteousness of these cities, then maybe we understand why Abraham doesn't want any of their things. Also, Abraham doesn't seem to be enthused with the idea of taking things that don't belong to him. He is concerned with making sure people get back with belongs to them. he is concerned with making sure his emn are fed and taken care of properly. But, he makes no provision for himself. 

So, why does he give a tenth of all he has to this obscure king/priest who suddenly shows up on the scene? Lets also look at where this king comes from. It is said that he is the "king of Salem". The word in our times has been associated with such things as witches and mischief. Salem, in Hebrew and in OT times, would have been a place of blessing. In the northern part of Israel, Gerizim serves as the place where Salem most likely would have been. many people, known as Samaritans later in the OT account, and would have been viewed as the actual place where the temple of worship to God was to be built, and not in Jerusalem. Regardless of the residence of Malkizedek, Samaritan tradition identified a "Salem" as a place on the slopes of Mount Gerizim which served as a blessing place of the children of Israel upon their initial crossing of the Jordan river. Maybe the issue of tithing has something to do with where Melchizedek is from. God says he is going to make Abraham's children as many as the stars in the sky. The idea of receiving a blessing from God means we in turn bless God with what we have. The attachment that Melchizedek is a priest of the Most High God in this light is unmistakeable. Maybe Abraham gives his money to the priest of the Most High because God has blessed him with so much.

It's also worth asking here, who's money is it?
Is it Melchizedek's money? Is Abraham giving it to the priest?
If malki zedek is receiving this offering, then what is he doing with it? Well, if he is truly a "king" of "righteousness" or "justice" then there would be much he could do with it. Are there hungry and homeless in his time. Certainly there are. Is there people oppressed or in need? The righteous thing to do would be to help anyone who needs it. And, if "Salem" is place of blessing the children, for the sake of my imagination, I can see an orphanage or a place to bring your child to be blessed. There is much good that can be done here by "the king of righteousness". It's not about the priest that Abraham is giving this money. It's not Melchizedek's money. It is because of the Most High God.

So, maybe we've just muddied the water a bit.
My hope is that some of this shows the beginning of why we tithe. Next week we will go a bit further and see what history shows us after the Law of Moses. As we prepare for that, if behooves us to ask the question - why do we tithe? Tithing reflects a grateful heart that wants to give back to God a portion of what He has given us; in reality, what is already His. Tithing is our opportunity to show God that He is first in our lives. James 1:17 says that “every good and perfect gift is from above ...,” so we have an opportunity to tangibly show God He is the “owner” of our finances by giving back to Him the first of what He gives us.

After the war was over, Abraham makes sure he shows that God is first in his life.
He gives to the priest of the Most High God a offering, a tenth of all he has.

What do you have in hands today? Money? Time? Wealth? Possessions?

What can you give back to God out of what He has given to you?